Nov. 12, 2007
President and Founder of Early Learning Foundation says No Child Left Behind created unintended consequences.
The greatest shift toward federalism in the history of American public education took place in 2001, and it happened with relatively little public debate, or scrutiny by the media and educational organizations.
No Child Left Behind's first goal was to eliminate achievement gaps between subgroups among American public school students. Boys and girls, and children of all races would achieve learning success at similar levels, which would be carefully monitored by state assessment tests. NCLB's second promise was that all American students would reach proficiency in reading and math by 2014.
How could anyone argue with such persuasive goals? Certainly, the federal government was about to get it right.
For me, NCLB's apparent acknowledgement of the importance of early learning success was especially sweet. For the first time, it seemed, our nation was about to aggressively help schools build the early learning experiences which influence success throughout each child's life.
Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the unintended consequences of the legislation began to appear.
The unrealistic expectations of NCLB set up schools to fail. Instead of nurturing change, highlighting model schools, and emphasizing opportunities for greater success, the empowered federal authorities developed many ways to identify, threaten, and punish failing schools. Without any research to support the idea that schools have the capacity to eliminate all gaps between subgroups, even many award-winning schools began to fail to achieve the required annual yearly progress for each subgroup. Somehow, federal regulations named disabled students as a subgroup, and they are now expected to reach proficiency at the same level as their non-handicapped peers.
NCLB requires careful reporting of achievement data by states and local districts, and more district time goes to reports than ever before.
As 2014 grows near, and higher levels of achievement are required, more schools will face federal sanctions. In response, state and local education agencies have added more content expectations to already overfull curricula, asking second grade students to do work that once was expected of third or fourth graders. There is no scientific support for pushing material on children before they are ready to learn it.
Many schools have narrowed their curricula, cutting art, music, physical education, and recess, all in the hope of higher scores in the tested subjects. Test preparation IS the new curriculum. In some schools, time for play and inquiry are almost gone.
Many anxious teachers now fail to develop classroom procedures, build relationships, or develop a safe and connected classroom culture in their haste to cover what is on the test.
States have also discovered how to adjust their testing standards for proficiency so they can improve the perception of how many students are achieving high levels of learning in national ratings. There is no common standard among the states.
My special sadness is the lack of thoughtful progress toward a commitment to help every possible child experience early learning success. Every day we wait to implement quality early learning programs, there are children lost to a lifetime of learning success, which will shape the quality of their lives, and ours.